When Tracey Emin announced in late 2020 that her survival from an aggressive form of cancer was made possible by the surgical removal of her bladder, uterus, urethra, fallopian tubes, ovaries, parts of her intestines, and half of her vagina, there must have been an audible gasp all around not just at the sheer brutality of the procedure necessary her recovery, but at the devastating blow to the identity of an artist who has made the lived experience of femaleness, mainly her own femaleness, so central to her work. At 57, Emin speaks with defiant delight at defeating cancer. But her words of happy defiance belie the trauma she had gone through. In an interview with the BBC’s Kirsty Wark during this same period, she says it’s like she’s walked away from a plane crash. The wreckage, it would seem, is what remains of her body, the aftermath of a merciless cellular onslaught.
The Sunday Times journalist Decca Aitkenhead has also interviewed Emin not long after this announcement and is more than empathetic on the subject. Both women are survivors of cancer during a difficult time of their life. Aitkenhead found she had grade 3 breast cancer a mere year after she witnessed her partner drown at sea. Cancer would be the nadir to the long-running health complications that Emin kept from the public for some time. She was afflicted with kidney reflux just five years previously, a condition that redirects urine back into the body, which, using a catheter, meant never being able to urinate normally ever again. Then she discovered that ‘something wasn’t right’ in the summer of 2020, when most people were denied urgent non-Covid medical attention due to pandemic lockdowns in the UK. Wealth and fame perhaps saved her life; Emin had access to a private urologist who rushed her to surgery within three weeks of diagnosis. In less than a month, her body had completely transformed. Emin talks about the many indignities of her newfound disability. No longer in possession of a bladder, she is completely reliant on an umbilical urostomy bag that needs to be emptied out every twenty minutes or so. Most lurid of all, she speaks darkly of no longer having a ‘hole’ between her legs because it’s now all sewn up.
When I lived in London many years ago, I made it a point to see Tracey Emin’s solo shows, notably her 2011 retrospective, Love is What You Want at the Southbank gallery. It was a visit and revisit of her central preoccupation: the reclamation of the/her female body from the depredations of male violence and misogyny, presented in life-affirming media – word sabres in neon, undainty needlework, time capsule videos of a working-class childhood, tactile primitivist sculptures of animals. When she says that she wishes for her vagina back, it is apparent why: it is the motif that propels her life’s work. In one video installation forever etched in my memory features a moving drawing of a naked woman (‘Masturbating’, 2006), legs wide apart, her vulva in proud display like a feminist origin myth. The video canvas is large and stands on its own, depicting a singularly private moment. She is pleasuring herself; the video loops after a few minutes, but clearly going by the artist’s credo on female ecstasy it exceeds far longer than that. Like an embarrassing aunty, Emin enjoys remarking in polite company that the female orgasm is superior to male ejaculation in its relentlessness, its ability to go on and on. Now, references to multiple female orgasms are appropriated to reflect on the drive of women like herself who continue to do their best work beyond their menopausal years.
Art critics, especially women critics, are less quick to hail her genius, perhaps out of a combination of class snobbery and refusal to be complicit in Emin’s totalising views on the female experience, that you’re either a victim or virago. Decca Aitkenhead confessed her anxiety about formally engaging with the ‘contrarian’ Emin, a euphemism for incoherence and politesse that Emin doesn’t sound very smart when she speaks. But what she really means is that Emin is not posh. She bucks the trend of British art and high culture. As the proud daughter of the dingy seaside town of Margate, Emin’s working class, single-mother upbringing blighted by sexual violence and adolescent promiscuity is a repudiation to the toxic British obsession with class.
Anyone old enough will remember that Emin made her name by being a bit of an embarrassment to the cultural establishment. She would be forever associated with her notorious car crash drunken appearance on a talk show with male art critics, slurring and cursing incoherently on television. In some ways, it made sense why she appeared the way she did. She had just been nominated for the 1999 Turner Prize for ‘My Bed’ after many years of making art. It mattered little to her what she said on the show because she admits to remembering nothing. But she is at pains to remind others that her being roped in by Charles Saatchi into the Young British Artist (YBA) movement at the age of 36 in 1999 wasn’t in her opinion ‘young’ anymore.
Like so many female artists who use their bodies as the locus of their art, there is something about Emin that is unvarnished, even crude. Her early work that propelled her to fame, ‘My Bed’ and ‘Everyone I Ever Slept With’, exemplify these qualities. The former is an installation of what is presumably her own bed surrounded by the insignia of her life; it is unmade, sheets stained with bodily fluids, littered with ashtrays, used condoms and tampons. ‘My Bed’ (1999) creates a nosy voyeur of Emin’s life in the viewer, wryly inviting them to see and judge the lurid details of a woman’s life, a bohemian artist’s life. Is it art’s attempt to turn sexual prudery on its head? Look long enough and confront your own prejudices her work seems to suggest. Or does it simply feed the spectacle machine that objectifies and commodifies the grimier aspects of femininity?
Her other well-known work, ‘Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995’ (1997), charts a similar territory. It was, as it no longer exists having accidentally burned in a fire, a large tent. Its interior walls are appliqued with names of people she has slept with. But not all are sexual partners, as they include her twin brother and grandmother. The reproduction of their names bears the hallmarks of hand-stitched domesticity, a quilt-piece of intimacy. The tent would strike a less generous viewer as a simplistic display of an oversharing laddette. But it is constructed with a less than simple reflection on the artificial divide between private and public, the non-threatening and perverse, prudery and liberation. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, ‘Everyone I Ever Slept With’ is a bracing expression of female sexuality if not for its hackneyed tropes – the womblike tent with its soft pastel interiors.
Emin’s triumph over cancer, like a veteran returning from war with fewer body parts, is cast over by other shadows that have plagued her life in middle age. Her public desire to find love is countervailed by an eccentric remedy to her loneliness. In 2016, she made news that she had married a geological artefact, an actual stone. She claims that the inanimate object was more reliable than any man she’s known and loved. It is hard not to mock or feel sorrow for this Miss Haversham of the conceptual art world and her unartful literalness. It was, however, not surprising that her stone-spouse couldn’t be called to fill the void of intimacy she so longingly craves.
Disarmingly cheerful in her post-cancer interviews she reveals that her year of illness had succeeded a very dark year of hollowness. In 2019, she had despaired at the emptiness of her private life despite arriving at yet another peak in her long and illustrious career. The three weeks of bodily trauma in the summer of 2020 represented but a blip with life-long consequences in what had been a happier year for Emin when she finally made peace with her lot in life. How cruel it is, remarks Aitkenhead, that the well-deserved period of contentment should be dramatically marred by a disfiguring illness that will redefine Emin’s identity for life. Emin however has little taste for much self-pity. It took her the brush with possible death to face the public with her disability, which expands her existing territory of corporeal realness in which excretions seem to follow the passage of time, from the ejaculations of virile youth to the piss of age.
Aitkenhead is also overwhelmed by sadness to hear that the partying days that made Emin a household name on gossip pages were actually not indulged with much joy. As she approaches 60, Emin reveals that she regrets the hard-drinking and partying lifestyle associated with the YBAs and the likes of Damien Hirst. It was all peer pressure, she participated so that she ‘could fit in.’ She also blames her prolific smoking as the probable cause of her cancer. But it’s not just the adolescent desire to ‘fit in’ that strikes Aitkenhead as a tragedy but the apparent wasted time and energy that could’ve been better spent on more fulfilling endeavours. Not that Emin was un-prolific, though she does regret she could’ve used that time to do more painting. One wonders if she also regrets having missed the opportunity in her youth to find love and raise a family? It’s a question all child-free women are asked or made to ask themselves, casting doubt on an otherwise productive life lived without children or life partner.
I listened to Aitkenhead talk about her interview with Emin on a Times podcast several times. She is articulate and is the perfect messenger for relaying to the world Emin’s state during her convalescence. Her anxiety of meeting the artist for the first time to interview her is mercifully diminished by their mutual experience of cancer, but also by Emin’s bracing transparency and candour that Aitkenhead first mistook for simplicity. Throughout the interview, an exhausted Emin speaks from her bed, providing a kind of ‘symmetry’ for how Aitkenhead would come to know the artist. She was first introduced to Emin’s work in a viewing of ‘My bed’ in the late 1990s and here was the artist herself when Aitkenhead meets her – in her bed, but under very different circumstances.
The aura of Emin’s work exploits the slippage between art and personal biography, the particular and universal. She makes art to communicate her lived experiences and her understanding of the world, which necessitates the slippage that takes place between her lived body and art. For these reasons, there is no irony in her work, not even in her neon work, ‘Fuck off and die, you slag’ (2002). It was clear she had never set out to be a paragon of modesty – in different senses of the word – best illustrated in her photograph, ‘I’ve Got it All’ (2000) which shows her on the floor, stuffing bank notes into her naked crotch with much glee. Yet I bristle when Emin is forced to respond to the view that her now-deformed vagina was ‘famous’, reducing her identity, work, and fame to her reproductive organs. Like many female artists who have turned to their body as muse and material, there is an expectation that life should imitate art and vice versa. For Emin, her preoccupation with sex and sexuality invites speculation about her colourful life. But in recent decades, she disappoints ardent busybodies everywhere. She has drawings and paintings that depict her having sex, but she has lived a celibate life for many years. They’re reminders of a past life, monuments to sexual revelry.
After her startling rise in the 1990s, Tracey Emin is finally regarded as a ‘serious’ contemporary artist by ‘serious’ art critics. It is important to note that her art has not changed much, nor has her subject matter, but critical opinion have been significantly revised. Critics now hail her as the ‘real deal.’ This has worked out to be the trajectory of female artists who have had long, fruitful careers. After decades of productive efflorescence that go either unremarked or derided by critics, they are eventually rewarded for sticking around for so long. Tracey Emin is no different in this respect; she has become the grand dame of British contemporary art. Critics admit to seeing her ‘differently’ now, they confess that their mockery has corrected itself into appreciation. They have caught up with her, speaking of her reverently like a living deity in the pantheon of art, after she has spent many years laughing all the way to the bank. She is living proof that an artist and her art can outlive and succeed beyond the snobbery of critical appraisal.
In 2011, Emin was appointed Professor of Drawing at the highly esteemed Royal Academy in London, among the first female professors since the institution’s founding in 1768. Years earlier, it made her a member of the Royal Academy, making her an establishment figure. Thanks to celebrity admirers who collect her art and a multitude of other glitzy opportunities, she has become fabulously wealthy, a far cry from the penurious, debt-saddled likes of Francis Bacon. She is listed as one of the most powerful women in the UK and, other than the money, it shows. She manages her studio, a multi-story building buzzing with assistants who dance to her choreography, like a CEO overseeing the expansion of her enterprise, her brand. More recently, she established an art school in her hometown, Margate. These details of her life add a feather to the cap of post-Thatcherite British social mobility, bucking another historical trend of garret-dwelling artists. Here is the artist as corporate leader. As she rises ahead and above her fellow YBA peers after decades of hard graft and great personal anguish, most observers, myself included, would regard her as akin to a heroine of a bawdy early English novel, a rags-to-riches tale of a female upstart who uses sex and guile to accomplish a social and material prize.
What does Tracey Emin’s last laugh sound like? Fresh from the maw of illness, hers is the sound of defiance that commands staggering awe. However, the belated respect for her work arrives after the horrible disfigurement to the source of her artistic fecundity. Her infamous sexuality is now mostly defunct. But given her tenacity, her new body is unlikely to be her undoing. Through her skills and erudition, her body of work past, present and future may well transcend her own body. The ability to turn trauma into art is her signature, she is just as likely to turn her new body as her canvas yet again. She is playing the long game that many women know all too well. The long game played with the rules of endurance, patience, and resilience. It means occupying the vantage point of time, where one can find the most intense, unsullied pleasure of revenge, mainly in its deferral.
The long game would have a long trail of output that builds into each other, constituting into firm and unshakeable sedimentation over time. Her enormous body of work is testament to a repudiation, perhaps wilful ignorance of that female malaise, the imposter syndrome. In her case, the condition is far from imagined. Villainous art critics still seek to expose her as a fraud even in her much-garlanded career as Professor of Art and Royal Academician. In a less favourable review of her 2011 show, the Telegraph art critic Alastair Sooke questioned her credibility; here was a Royal Academy Professor of Drawing who not too long ago was taking drawing lessons in New York. Perhaps deep down the accumulation of incredulity might have taken hold but rather than stunted, it birthed creative growth. The desire to improve on her art never seems to have left her even it might mean taking lessons and being a student again.
Sometimes on the arc of the long game a coordinate of one’s life hits upon a point that connects to an immeasurably wider purpose. In this case, a once in a century pandemic. Her 2020-21 show bears a prescient title that she surely must have chosen initially to neutralise and reclaim the ravages of her private isolation. It became a welcome foresight for all. The Loneliness of the Soul exhibition at the Royal Academy in London and Oslo brought together paintings of her idol, Edvard Munch, in conversation with her new work. It was closed in the first nationwide lockdown in March 2020 after opening for just nine days then reopened in the following year in May. It reopened after she went in remission, just as when the public was slowly coming to terms with their own isolation. This would be the point of convergence of collective private loneliness that restores hope. She did not expect that the traumatic wounds and gashes that rupture those of Munch’s human figures and hers, made before the awareness of her cancer, would resonate with her own eventual corporeality. And here is where Emin’s genius and prescience lie. For all her career, life precedes the work. As someone who for so long was so attuned to her body, she has now developed a talent for premonition, art as prophecy. Through the prism of Emin’s work, we may find the non-linearity and circularity of pain, life, and hope.